CULLMAN, Ala. – The governor of Alabama has expressed his support for a public prayer event scheduled for today, which was organized by the Cullman County school superintendent, who is also a Christian.
As previously reported, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) had sent a letter to to Cullman County School District Superintendent Billy Coleman last month, urging him to scrub the “prayer caravan” that he both organized and advertised.
The caravan is a multi-site prayer gathering where various Christians from the community travel to every school in the district the Saturday before teachers arrive for the new academic year, and then pray on campus for approximately 10-15 minutes. It is described as “a time to lift up [Cullman County's] schools to God and ask His blessings for the upcoming school year.”
“The ‘Prayer Caravan’ event is an especially egregious violation [of the Constitution's Establishment Clause],” the letter from FFRF stated. “The event is school-sponsored and school promoted. Indeed you, as superintendent, are promoting the religious ritual. It does not matter that this event occurs outside normal school hours…”
However, Coleman told local television station WIAT that the event is not sponsored by the district and is therefore lawful.
“This is not something the board voted on,” he advised. “It is just something I started.”
While Coleman was willing to remove the event information from the district website in an effort to appease the organization, he said that the prayer caravan would still go forward as planned.
“The school system doesn’t sponsor it, so they’re not going to cancel it. There’s nothing to cancel from their standpoint,” he told television station WAFF. “I initiated it, [but] I am not going to cancel it.”
On Thursday, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley expressed his support for Coleman and the prayer caravan outside an event in Decatur.
“I personally believe that one of the problems we have in this country is taking God out of, not only our lives, but out of government,” he told reporters with television station WBRC. “But, we can’t force that on someone. That’s what the Constitution says. We cannot force that on people. But, people have the right to express their opinions on their beliefs. And I do it all the time. Nobody’s put me in jail yet.”
As previously reported, FFRF recently sent a second letter to Coleman, addressing further concerns about Christian events and practices taking place in the district. The organization claimed that school events and meetings are often held in churches, that prayer often precedes the lunch period and is a part of the graduation ceremonies, and that every Tuesday, a preacher visits West Point Elementary School to share the Gospel with the support of teachers.
“This is a serious breach of the Constitution and wildly inappropriate,” FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel stated. “Public school teachers may not pressure students regarding matters of religion. Cullman County Schools has a lot of work to do to conform to the First Amendment of United States Constitution.”
However, Coleman’s wife, Shireen, the principal of West Point Elementary School, explained to the Cullman Times that the event on Tuesdays is actually a voluntary community devotional that is held before school hours.
“It’s been going on for several years and I can’t even remember when it was started,” she outlined. “A parent volunteer leads it, not a preacher, and it takes place before school for any students who choose to attend. In all the several years it has been going, I’ve never had a complaint about it, and it’s definitely not something that has been pushed on people.”
Main Photo: Sutherland Boswell